Sunday, September 25, 2011
Death Penalty and the Dignity of Life
The execution (murder) of Troy Davis this week threw the issue of Capital Punishment back in the limelight. The deep and continuing tragedy of this policy continues to mar too many US States not to mention many countries around the world.
There is no shortage of reasons to oppose the death penalty. For one thing, it costs four times as much to execute a murderer as to house him or her for life. For another, judges and juries make mistakes (this week alone a Florida man was released after thirty years in prison for a crime DNA evidence has just proven he didn’t commit).
Its historical application has more than smacked of racism, not to mention political grandstanding. And, once convicted, a death row inmate must actually prove his or her innocence, a fact that sent Troy Davis to the executioner’s table even though 7 of the 9 witnesses to the murder recanted their original statements and no physical evidence ever linked him to the crime. Doubt was not enough.
Finally, it wreaks emotional and mental havoc on guards, executioners and families of the executed – all innocent victims. Any time we tell someone (guard, soldier, doctor) that they are not responsible for their actions, that they need not exercise their conscience, that others (judges, juries, officers) are the ones responsible for the call, we stray into dangerous territory. Like it or not we are each responsible before God for our actions. We were given the freedom to exercise conscience. We cannot pass it on to others and simply argue that we were following orders.
But the overarching reason that the death penalty is wrong is simple. It comes down to four words: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Of all the commandments this is probably the most straightforward – so much simpler than trying to figure out what it means to honor your mother and father, or what exactly constitutes a lie. Don’t kill. Don’t ever kill.
The dignity of life lies at the forefront of Christian faith. It is the reason that Jesus does not fight back from the cross. It is the reason that he allowed himself to be killed, innocent victim of capital punishment, in a self-emptying act that should have ended the death penalty once and for all. Two thousand years ago the Roman soldiers got it wrong. Has anything changed?